“I’m a ‘momtrepreneur.’ I grew the business as I grew my son; he’s six-foot four and 220 pounds now – so my business is getting big like him,” laughs Karen Anderson, President and CEO of Alberta Food Tours.
It has been a convoluted journey for the little girl who grew up in Saint Andrew’s, New Brunswick, with a grandfather who had a fish market and another who was an organic market gardener. One uncle kept pigs and another had milking cows, so she grew up knowing where every bit of her food came from. “And we always had three great homemade meals every day,” she says.
Gaining a master’s degree, Anderson worked as an adult health nurse practitioner in Boston, USA. She was in nursing for 21 years, but on returning to Alberta, she found she was with people that had diseases caused by food – either obesity or a poor diet.
“They didn’t have cooking skills,” she says. “We are about three generations where there hasn’t been someone cooking in the home, and I was seeing the ill effects of that. After having my family I tried to keep nursing, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I wanted to influence that.”
Anderson had done a food tour in Boston, and would shop in the six stores of that district where she had built relationships, which started her thinking of running food tours in Calgary, and creating connections where people would favour local businesses. She volunteered for Slow Food and ran Feast of Fields several times with 25 chefs, 75 farmers, 250 guests, and 100 volunteers. “It was like running a wedding every summer,” she laughs.
She started writing and became a columnist for CBC Radio, and in 2006 launched her tour business, growing organically and very gradually, and hiring guides as it grew. Edmonton tours followed in 2016 and later that year, after raising $21,000 from an ATB crowdfunding campaign, she expanded to Canmore.
In 2017, while researching for her book, Food Artisans of Alberta, she interviewed Executive Chef JW Foster at Fairmont Banff Springs, and was blown away by how authentic they were with 25 apprentices and 150 chefs extensively supporting around 25 local farms. She wanted to run a food tour and tell the history of Banff and the hotel, and is thrilled that her “Eat The Castle” tour has just been approved as a Canadian Signature Experience.
Now with eight tours in four cities, and 19 guides including Japanese, French, and Spanish speaking, Alberta Food Tours is ready to host the world.
What bottle is Anderson saving for a special occasion?
She has two bottles – one deeply personal and one very professional, and explains: “I consider myself an ambassador for Alberta’s food and drink community, so I’ve taken wild rice to India, brassica mustard to France, and I take canola oil every time I go to New Brunswick to my family.”
“I have a bottle that my husband and I bought that’s in the top 1% of wines in the world – a 1999 Gaja barbaresco. That was the year our son was born, and this question has made me think, ‘why ARE we waiting’? We lost our first child so we don’t take it for granted. And he’ll graduate in two years, if all’s well.”
But a bottle that Anderson feels really special about is Eau Claire Distillery’s Saskatoon Berry and Honey Gin, and she’ll be taking it next year to her partner company in India. “I’ve taken Eau Claire whiskey to them and they loved it,” she says. “But I thought India and gin go hand in hand, so I’ll take it with me and open it with my friends, and have an Alberta gin and tonic there.”